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Boris Johnson's lies worked for years, until they didn't

After a lifetime of swaggering and dissembling his way through one scandal after another on the strength of his prodigious political skills, Boris Johnson has finally reached the end. It seems that the laws of gravity apply to him after all

By Sarah Lyall
Published: Jul 8, 2022

Boris Johnson's lies worked for years, until they didn'tPrime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom poses near a bust of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a visit to the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 22, 2021. Johnson said on Thursday, July 7, 2022, that he would step down as prime minister, after a wholesale rebellion of his cabinet, a wave of government resignations and a devastating loss of party support prompted by his handling of the party’s latest sex-and-bullying scandal. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times)

After a lifetime of swaggering and dissembling his way through one scandal after another on the strength of his prodigious political skills — a potent mix of charm, guile, ruthlessness, hubris, oratorical dexterity and rumpled Wodehousian bluster — Boris Johnson has finally reached the end. It seems that the laws of gravity apply to him after all.

It’s not that he ever fooled anyone about who he really was. Over the years, he has routinely been described as mendacious, irresponsible, reckless and lacking any coherent philosophy other than wanting to seize and hold on to power.

“People have known that Boris Johnson lies for 30 years,” writer and academic Rory Stewart, a former Conservative member of Parliament, said recently. “He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie.”

In contrast to former President Donald Trump, another politician with an improvisational and often distant relationship to the truth, Johnson’s approach has rarely been to double down on his lies or to delude himself for consistency’s sake into acting as if they were true. Rather, he recasts them to fit new information that comes to light, as if the truth were a fungible concept, no more solid than quicksand.

Mislead, omit, obfuscate, bluster, deny, deflect, attack, apologize while implying that he has done nothing wrong — the British prime minister’s blueprint for dealing with a crisis, his critics say, almost never begins, and rarely ends, with simply telling the truth. That approach worked for him for years — until finally it didn't.

His government weathered scandal after scandal, much of it centered on Johnson’s behavior. He was rebuked by the government’s ethics adviser after a wealthy Conservative donor contributed tens of thousands of pounds to help him refurbish his apartment. (Johnson repaid the money.) There were the private text messages he exchanged with a wealthy British businessman over his plan to manufacture ventilators in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, which raised questions of impropriety. There was an almost farcical accrual of embarrassing disclosures about how often Johnson’s aides (and sometimes Johnson) attended boozy parties during the worst days of the COVID lockdown, flagrantly violating rules the country had set for itself.

In the end, the prime minister’s different explanations for what he knew, and when, about Chris Pincher, a Conservative legislator accused of sexual impropriety, finally tipped the scales against him. It was clear that he had once again failed to tell the truth.

Also read: From Watergate to Partygate, shorthand for scandal

After helping engineer the downfall of his competent but lackluster predecessor, Theresa May, in 2019, Johnson entered office with an energetic mandate for change. His populist message, buoyant personality and easy promises to cut taxes and red tape, free Britain from the burdens of belonging to the European Union and restore the country’s pride in itself appealed to a public weary of the brutal fight over the Brexit referendum and eager to embrace someone who appeared to be expressing what they themselves felt.

But like Trump, who put a more sinister cast on his own populist message, Johnson has always behaved as if he were bigger than the office that he held, as if the damage he caused was inconsequential as long as he could remain in power. His resignation speech, in which he vowed to remain in office until the Conservatives could choose a new leader, was notable for its lack of self-awareness and its misreading of the curdled mood of his former supporters.

Born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — he began using “Boris” in a sort of rebranding exercise in high school — the soon-to-be-ex prime minister has a long and well-documented history both of evading the truth and of acting as if he believes himself to be exempt from the normal rules of behavior. His many years in public life — as a newspaper reporter and columnist, as the editor of an influential London political magazine, as a politician — have left a trail of witnesses to, and victims of, his slippery nature.

When he was editor of the Spectator magazine, he lied to the editor, Conrad Black, promising not to serve in Parliament while working at the magazine. (He did.) When he was first elected to Parliament, he lied to his constituents when he promised to quit his Spectator job. (He didn’t.) As a legislator, he lied to the party leader, Michael Howard, and to the news media when he publicly declared that he had not had an affair with a writer for the magazine, nor gotten her pregnant and paid for her abortion. (He had done all of that.)

When he was the Brussels correspondent for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s, Johnson wrote highly entertaining but blatantly inaccurate articles designed to paint the European Union as a factory of petty regulation intent on stamping out British individuality — articles that helped establish an anti-Europe narrative for a generation of Conservatives and pave the way for Brexit, two decades later.

Johnson himself described the experience years later to the BBC as akin to “chucking rocks over the garden wall” and then realizing that “everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party.”

“And it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he said.

In 2016, serving simultaneously as mayor of London and a member of Parliament, Johnson betrayed the Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, when he led the pro-leave side of the Brexit debate, contrary to the party’s position. Serving as foreign secretary under Cameron’s successor, May, he stabbed her in the back — and set the stage for his own accession to the job — by resigning from the government and denouncing the Brexit agreement she had spent months negotiating.

His womanizing and affairs were an open secret during his marriage to his second wife, Marina Wheeler, the mother of four of his (at least) seven children. They separated when his affair with a Conservative official, Carrie Symonds, now the mother of two of the seven, came to light. He has at least one other child, a daughter born during a liaison with a married adviser when he was the (still-married) mayor of London, in the 2010s.

“I would not take Boris’ word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday,” Max Hastings, the Telegraph editor who hired Johnson as his Brussels correspondent, once said. In 2019, when Johnson was poised to become prime minister, Hastings wrote an article titled “I was Boris Johnson’s Boss: He is Utterly Unfit to be Prime Minister.” In it, he called Johnson a “cavorting charlatan” who suffered from “moral bankruptcy” and exhibited “a contempt for the truth.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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